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Powers of Persuasion

The British Council’s most recent soft power report, published this summer, shows that for the first time the UK ranks as the overall most attractive country for young people in the G20. According to Matt Burney, the British Council’s China Director, this is expressed in a bilateral relationship with China of greater range, depth and complexity than ever before. Moreover, at a time of acute international uncertainty it offers a valuable opportunity for the UK to build engagement and trust with people in China. Maintaining this edge in the post-Covid era will require commitment however and concerted effort to raise China literacy in the UK.  

What’s the difference between soft power and cultural power?

Soft power is the intangible assets of a country, which grows perceptions and overall attractiveness– it is what makes people want to do business with a country or to study or travel to that country. Our research shows that the UK’s cultural institutions, its education institutions and its language are huge soft power assets. The British Council’s brand of soft power is cultural relations. That's long-term relationship building through the lens of education, English language and through culture. It’s about developing a conversation as opposed to just putting on a lecture about how good we are.

Research shows soft power does go on to develop prosperity outcomes because the more that people trust the UK the more likely they are to invest and do business with the UK, or to travel and study there. Ultimately, we're not trying to convince anybody of anything. What we're trying to do using soft power is develop long-term relationships by keeping those channels to education, culture and language learning as open as possible so that people can make up their own minds about what it means to be a 21st-century citizen.


How has the British Council’s work been changed by the pandemic?

The pandemic caused significant disruption to  the way that we did things. Around one million people in China take UK examinations, so all testing had to stop in the short term and we had to work very quickly to innovate in terms of how we deliver things and how we work as a team. This meant adopting digital methods of delivery and a lot more computer-based testing.

At the moment the UK has  the British Museum, the V&A and Manchester Metropolitan University, and  in Shanghai  the Tate has an exhibition. So, there's still a lot of that kind of activity taking place but it's required digital curation. That’s been a learning opportunity because when you’re working across the Great Firewall it's a real challenge. But by focusing on digital delivery we have been able to develop new audiences in different parts of China outside the tier-one cities.

The #ReConnect digital culture festival, which just came to an end included a whole range of British institutions from right across the UK, including the North West, which perhaps wouldn't normally have access to China without digital platforms. So there have been real benefits to doing this in terms of reach and creating impact and brand profile.


How have these changed perceptions of the UK in China?

When I first came here 20 years ago it was all ‘foggy London and Charles Dickens’, kind of thing, but people are a lot more sophisticated now. They have a lot more information and the conversation has moved on to the kinds of issues and values that are important universally, such as equality, diversity, inclusion and climate change, and using culture, arts and education as much as possible as a vehicle to engage in those kinds of conversations. That's been the strategy of the British Council over the past 42 years that it’s been in China.


It feels like there's never been a more difficult time to build a case for developing the UK’s relationship with China.

What I say to people in the UK when I'm briefing them is that there are difficulties in any bilateral relationship, regardless of which countries you're talking about. We've got to be really careful that what people read in the news is not understood as the entirety of the relationship that exists between the UK and China. That relationship goes a lot deeper than political divergence. It's absolutely right that we should contest when we feel that there's a need to contest, because we're partners. And if there's something we don't feel is aligned to a particular set of values it's important that we use the diplomatic channels to address those issues. But actually, on the ground the relationships that exist through education and culture are so rich that they remain strong despite the tensions elsewhere.  

Of course, the relationship is more complex now. But we are doing more work in education, culture and trade than we've ever done before. It's not a case of the relationship deteriorating. It's a lot more a case of the relationship becoming more complex as it widens and develops. It's important to recognize that there is a difference between political divergence and the relationship as it exists in reality.


That would surprise many people. Does this point to a lack of understanding in the UK?

Yes, and I think we've got to address this. The official number at the moment is 740,000 Chinese nationals who are currently living and working in China with a UK degree. That's a massive number of Chinese people who are UK alumni, and a huge number of ambassadors for the bilateral relationship. It's a much smaller number in the UK that have China experience.

I really think that if we are to engage with China in a meaningful way we need a generation of young people who are China literate. That's not necessarily learning Chinese, it's understanding the history of China and Chinese society; it’s knowing how Chinese society is structured so that they are better placed to navigate its complexities, understand what the risks are and what are the opportunities. But they’re not going to learn that from reading media headlines. They’re going to learn that through actual experience of China firsthand and this is why we have programs like Generation UK and the Mandarin Excellence Program, so that young British people can gain first-hand experience through internship opportunities and study opportunities.


How important is COP26 for building bridges with China?

It's a really big opportunity. You can't argue with the fact that climate change represents one of the biggest cultural challenges of our time. The British Council has been running a global campaign called Climate Connection that brings together young people, artists and educators, to share, learn and connect with each other to discuss issues relating to the climate crisis. So there is a real cultural and educational conversation to be had and COP26 is a fantastic opportunity for us to engage with young people around the world, including in China, about issues that are going to have a massive impact on all of us, but especially the next generation.


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